Despite the risks of smoking being well documented, 14% of those age 18 or older smoke cigarettes. That equates to over 34 million adults. Cigarettes and other tobacco products increase your risk of a host of health issues, including heart and lung diseases, stroke, COPD, and cancer. But does smoking cause tooth decay? The short answer is yes. People who smoke cigarettes aren’t usually thinking about their effects on the teeth and mouth. But there is no doubt that smoking can affect your appearance and put you at a higher risk of many oral health problems.
Smoking and Oral Health
The effects of smoking are quite significant on your teeth and mouth. Cigarettes contain up to 600 ingredients. As they burn, they produce smoke that contains over 7,000 different chemicals. Some of these chemicals you probably know – acetone, arsenic, lead, tar butane. When you smoke a cigarette, the soft tissue of your mouth (gums, cheeks, soft palate) is constantly exposed to these toxic substances. Smokers often have stained teeth, bad breath, and melanosis (brown spots in the mouth).
Tobacco use also makes you six times more likely to develop oral cancer or precancerous lesions. It can cause a coating to develop on your tongue, putting you at risk of a fungal infection called thrush, and can also reduce your ability to taste and smell. Smoking also attacks your gum line which leads to a much higher chance of developing gum disease. Brushing and flossing can help mitigate some of the risks, but people who smoke have a harder time maintaining good oral health.
How Smoking Affects Your Teeth
Gum disease, also known as periodontal disease, is a major risk factor for people who smoke. Gum disease is basically an infection that invades the bone structure that supports your teeth. Gum disease is caused by bacteria that live on your teeth. If those germs get underneath the gums, it affects the tissue causing it to become inflamed. So how do smoking and using oral tobacco products contribute to this problem?
It Changes Your Saliva
Saliva plays a large role in the overall health of your mouth. It provides lubrication of the soft tissues, helps with the breakdown of sugars, and neutralizes acids in the foods we eat and drink. It also serves to wash the mouth in between brushing, helping to naturally clean your teeth throughout the day.
There are three primary salivary glands and the one that produces the helpful watery saliva is the parotid gland. Your parotid gland is adversely affected by the chemicals in cigarette smoke and does not produce as much saliva as it should. This means the submandibular and sublingual glands must pick up the slack. However, these glands produce saliva that is much thicker and doesn’t clean as well as the thinner saliva produced by the parotid gland. This means the germs that cause periodontal disease to hang out longer than they should.
Increased Plaque and Tartar
When germs hang out on your teeth too long, they turn into plaque. Plaque is a sticky residue that builds up on your teeth in between brushings. If plaque is not removed from the teeth on a regular basis, it transforms into an incredibly hard substance called tartar, which can only be removed by a professional. Both substances harbor the bacteria responsible for gum disease. Because a smoker doesn’t have enough saliva to help wash away extra food particles, they are at risk for increased amounts of plaque and tartar, leaving the teeth susceptible to infection.
Weakened Immune System
Many of the chemicals found in cigarettes act as inflammatory and immunosuppressive agents. This means they affect the cells that make up your immune system and keep it from doing its job. When your immune system is suppressed, your body has a hard time fighting infections. If your body is not well-equipped to fight the germs that cause gum disease, it can quickly get out of control, resulting in tooth decay and even tooth loss.
Disease Progression and Treatment
Unfortunately, smoking can cause gum disease to progress at a faster pace than it would if you did not smoke. Smoking reduces the effectiveness of the circulatory system, which decreases the amount of blood going to the gums. This means that you will heal more slowly than a non-smoker. Not only does that exasperate current infections, but it also makes dental care more of a challenge. If the periodontal disease gets bad enough, your teeth may begin to fall out. Traditional treatment for tooth loss, including dental implants, usually require some sort of dental surgery. Delayed healing capabilities can impede surgical procedures and lead to long and painful recoveries.
Cancer should be a major concern for those that use tobacco products. Smokers are six times more likely than non-smokers to develop oral cancer of the lips, mouth, and throat. It is estimated that 50,000 people per year receive an oral cancer diagnosis each year, and just under 75% of those people use tobacco. If you visit your dentist regularly, they usually perform a yearly oral cancer screening once per year. However, if you are a smoker and notice anything in your mouth or on your tongue that doesn’t look right, call your dentist right away.
Does your mouth heal after you quit smoking?
The big question you may have right now is what happens if you quit tobacco use? Will your teeth and gums go back to normal? The good news is that quitting smoking will improve not only your oral health but your overall wellbeing, as well. Studies have shown that smokers with gum disease who quit smoking showed a marked improvement of their periodontal disease within one year.
If you are interested in quitting, don’t be afraid to ask your dentist for advice. In addition to keeping an eye on your oral health, your dentist may be able to set you up with some type of nicotine replacement therapy that will improve your odds of being able to quit.
Lose the Tobacco, Brighten Your Smile
There is little doubt that if you can quit tobacco, your chance of developing severe gum disease and other health issues will dramatically decrease. Smoking affects so many of your bodily systems. However, if you choose to continue, it’s important to be extra vigilant with your oral health routine. Your dentist may even recommend increasing your regular dental care to every three months. Patients who decide to try and quit should do so with the support of their family, friends, and a medical professional. Quitting smoking isn’t easy, but getting your health back is worth it.